Passive Voices, Thinner Skins: Our Language, Power and Personal Safety

“The ball was kicked by me” takes longer to say (or write, or think) than “I kicked the ball”. In straightforward grammatical terms, that’s why the passive voice gives us such a “bad deal”: it takes up more space, and gives far less pay-off in terms of information, meaning and mood. 

But here’s the other reason to watch out for the passive voice: it makes a subject into an object. Not much harm done when I’m kicking a ball but a whole other level of problematic when we’re talking about “violence against women”. Philippa Perry’s recent tweet drew my attention to Dr Jackson Katz’s TED Talk:

‘We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women… Even the term violence against women is problematic. It’s a passive construction. There’s no active agent in the sentence… It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but nobody is doing it to them. It just happens.’

Changing your use of language from passive to active won’t bring back Sarah Everard, or alter the reality for those of us who survived our assaults and even secured convictions (#metoo, along with pretty much every other woman you’ve interacted with today) that we calculate even the shortest journey weighing safely – our lives – against the expense of cabs, but it will matter. It will be an active step towards a society that doesn’t blame the “bad decisions” of the victim but the bad decisions of the perpetrator. 

Societal changes are thoughts and feelings before they are choices and policies. We need to imagine, and model, the behaviour we want to see. I was reminded of this by Andria Vidler’s wonderful talk for Olympic Studios this morning, that success in any industry is not about getting a “thicker skin” in terms of accepting you will be bullied, but in focusing on the objective, not the objectification: the changes you want to make. Here’s a recent tweet from financial journalist Nina Flitman after the news of Sarah Everard’s death hit the news:

‘About six months ago, I noted to a friend that I was sad that I couldn’t run after work anymore because the clocks changing meant it would be dark. He asked: “why can’t you run in the dark? Are you scared of the boogeyman.” No. I am scared of this.”

So please, please, litter-pick your prose. Whether telling me you kicked that ball or you walked that friend to her door, remember that language shapes thoughts, and thoughts shape choices. Each of us has agency. We are the subject, not the object. We are not all part of the problem but we can all be part of the solution. Use your active voice:

  1. Please read the article below.
  2. Please accept we are living on the same planet but in different worlds.
  3. Please ask for, accept and offer help and support.

#notallmenbutallwomen #saraheverard #allwomen #bethechange #languageispower #activevoice #communication #performance #communicationcoach #writingcoach #publicspeaking #publicspeakingcoach #eloquence